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The changes in our society over the past few years have highlighted the role that social media plays in young people’s lives. It’s a conduit for connection with friends, family, and influencers, and a source of entertainment and information.

By Amanda J. Pooley and Dr Kristy Goodwin


Research from 30 countries with 15,000 people aged 18 to 75 years of age found that one-third of respondents acknowledged that social media had had a negative impact on the quality of their life1. Concerningly, 45% of Gen Z (people aged 18 to 24 years) respondents reported spending more than four hours/day on social media and 43% indicated that they had not had a social media-free day in last 12 months. Interestingly, 37% of Gen Z respondents believe that the world would be better off without social media.

There are, of course, benefits to using social media. Despite the positive impacts of social media, there is also a flipside. Chief causes of concern amongst parents, teachers, health professionals, and young people themselves, is the impact of social media on mental health and the dissemination of data via these platforms. The design of social media is such that it can hijack young people’s attention and draw them into a digital vortex that’s hard to unplug from. There are significant costs, both psychologically and physically, if social media is used excessively or inappropriately.

Now is the time to question your relationship with social media: are you in control and using it in intentional ways that support your health and wellbeing, or is social media controlling you? Does it have a hold over you that you cannot completely explain or fully understand?

Below we are going to explore the ways in which social media, through specific design techniques, can manipulate young people (and adults too) and will conclude with practical strategies you can apply so that you can use social media in healthy and sustainable ways that suit your needs and lifestyle. Afterall, your device is supposed to be your tool, you are not your device’s tool, are you?


Now is the time to question your relationship with social media: are you in control... or is social media controlling you?

37% of people aged between 18 and 24 reported that they believe the world would be better off without social media

Social media: the positive and negative impacts on adolescent wellbeing

The widespread adoption of social media coincided with worsening mental health outcomes among adolescents and young people, giving rise to speculation that social media might be detrimental to mental health. Whilst there is ample research evidence that shows there’s correlation between social media adoption and usage and poorer mental health outcomes, these studies do not necessarily prove causation.

Positive Impacts

Social media can stave off loneliness and boredom. Virtual relationships have now become the norm for many people, so it’s believed that social media can strengthen social bonds with existing friends and create new opportunities for connections with others outside their physical peer group. Many young people also cite that social media has enabled them to access vital health information and enhanced their connection with peers and family members. Social connectedness is critical during all stages of life, but particularly in adolescence as young people start to gravitate towards their peer groups and away from their family units.

Whilst social media can certainly facilitate social connection and support, a sense of belonging and social interaction, the same technologies have also been found to undermine these qualities. Adolescents may be more vulnerable to the negative impacts such as ostracism and bullying, which negatively affects their sense of belonging2.

Many young people also cite that social media has enhanced their connection with peers and family members.


Interestingly, other students have shown that social media can have a negative impact on young peoples’ mental health. The paradoxical results may occur due to individual differences in how social media is used (for example, what time of the day is it being used, is it being used when the user is in a heightened emotional state?) and is also contingent upon the specific social media platform studied, as all social media platforms have unique designs and user experiences3.

There are both direct causal impacts of social media and the impact in terms of the displacement effect of social media. Some studies have shown that social media causes an increase in symptoms of poor mental health, especially depression, as social media fosters unfavourable social comparisons4. The comparative nature of social sharing of edited images, causes some young people to ‘compare and despair’: they compare their current reality, with the filtered images shared by their peers and influencers and feel despondent as a result.

Other studies have suggested that social media use can have an indirect, but significant impact on young people’s mental health due to the displacement effect. For example, excessive social media use can adversely impact sleep, physical movement, exposure to sunlight and opportunities for human-to-human connection, which are all critical for optimal mental health.

Overall, the existing body of research indicates that social media tends to have a more negative impact on young people’s mental health. It’s important to note, that these findings aren’t always consistent and replicable because of methodical limitations such as platforms studied and users self-reporting mental health outcomes.

It’s important to point out that the link between social media and mental health problems is not straightforward, with various contributory factors. To guide your social media use consider these questions:

  • What time/s of the day do you use social media? If you bookend your day scrolling social media (i.e. first thing in the morning and last thing at night, you’re more likely to activate your amygdala (the emotional hub of your brain) and activate your stress response. We also know that most cyberbullying takes place at night as the logical, problem-solving part of the brain the pre-frontal cortex, switches off and the amygdala turns on.
  • Who do you follow? Are your social media followers inspiring, educational, interesting, or do they agitate, frustrate, or annoy you?
  • What’s the opportunity cost? For every hour you spend on social media, it’s an hour not spent doing something else. Measure how much time you’re devoting to social media platforms using Screen Time (iOS) or Digital Wellbeing (Android) and consider what this time is displacing- sleep, movement, connection with real people, study?

Your social media experience is entirely dependent on you as to whether it’s a positive or negative experience. If not carefully managed and controlled, social media has been deliberately engineered to rob us of our two most important human resources: our time and our attention.

Excessive social media use can adversely impact sleep, physical movement, exposure to sunlight... all of which are all critical for optimal mental health.

Why is social media so appealing?

Social media is nearly universal amongst adolescents across the world today. There are three broad reasons that make social media so enticing for young people:

  1. It meets your most basic psychological needs - according to self-determination theory, humans have three basic needs and social media platforms precisely meet these needs. The most basic need we share as humans is the need for connection. We’re hard-wired to feel like we belong, and social media platforms provide myriad ways for young people to feel like they belong. They are a tool for relatively easy social connection, as compared to the sometimes more awkward and difficult in-person connections.

    The other needs we have are the need for competence and control. Again, social media apps fulfill these needs. You feel competent by the types of images, videos, and comments that you share and you feel like you’re in control when you’re scrolling through social media.
  2. It causes neurobiological changes - when you use social media, it’s usually a fun experience which can cause changes to occur in your brain and body. As a result of consuming or sharing social media content, your brain releases the pleasure neurotransmitter, dopamine, which makes you crave more and more of whatever instigated that dopamine hit and reinforces that you want to keep scrolling. Dopamine also overrides your prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that helps with your impulse control, working memory, and mental flexibility). Again, making it a challenging for you to stop scrolling.

    We also know that social media meets your brain’s need for novelty and instant gratification- there’s always something new, interesting, or entertaining on social media and you don’t have to exert much effort to feel this way, which is in stark contrast to the real, analogue world which is challenging and often offers delayed gratification. In one study 47% of young people acknowledged that social media was an escape from reality by enabling them to be entertained and/or connected with other people.

    Another study has shown that short, personalised videos, like those used on Tik Tok, activate brain regions that keep users’ attention and can explain the problematic usage that results from customised, short-form content5. The study, examining Chinese college students’ brains showed that watching personalised, algorithm-selected videos activated the reward centres in the brain much more than watching random videos that hadn’t been specifically chosen by the viewer. Brain scans of students who reported to regularly use the app revealed addiction-like responses and some participants lacked self-control to stop watching.
  3. Persuasive design techniques - the 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma highlighted just how social media companies have deployed a range of strategies to make social media platforms addictive. The use of intermittent variable rewards gets young people hooked on using platforms. You never know when you scroll Tik Tok or Instagram when you’ll watch something entertaining or informative, or when you share something on a social media platform how it will be received and it’s the unpredictable nature of the rewards that hooks young people into constantly using it.

    Other techniques such as the use of metrics (you can see the social validation in the form of likes and comments), colour choice (our eyes are drawn to warm colours so it’s no accident that your notification bubble is red as it’s a psychological trigger for urgency and importance) and the infinite scroll (social media has no stopping cues or endpoint so it’s challenging for you to ever feel like you’re ‘done’ or complete). Even the colour saturation of social media icons has evolved over the years.

Dopamine also overrides your prefrontal cortex making it challenging for you to stop scrolling.

Social media is here to stay, so it’s paramount that you develop healthy and sustainable habits and practices that ensure that you’re controlling, not being controlled by social media.

Strategies to Optimise Your Social Media Habits

  1. Be a critical consumer- research tells us that young people form para-social relationships with influencers (21% of young people believe that they would be friends with influencers and 71% learn from influencers in terms of health, style, news, and hobbies)6. However, there’s no quality control or vetting of what influencers share online, so think critically and evaluate the credibility of what’s shared on social media platforms. Do you think the information being shared by this person online is an educated opinion and one worth following? Do you think they are knowledgeable about what they are saying? Do they know better than you?
  2. Safeguard your privacy- social media platforms own your images and videos, all of them and forever, and they can use them without your permission in any way they want. Understand how your data is gathered and used and know your rights to protect it. Regularly update your privacy settings, as these regularly change and it’s not always clear how they’ve changed in an update. It is difficult to ascertain which social media platforms own your images and/or video, so the onus is on you to determine video and image ownership.
  3. Pause before you post- the recent video that was shared on Tik Tok that involved Billie Eilish making racial slurs in her teens and mocking non-English speakers highlights that there are long-term implications for what you share online. You are curating your digital DNA with every single keystroke you make. Every image, photo, post and message can be digitally disseminated and re-surfaced years down the track, sometimes with serious, embarrassing, or detrimental consequences. There are also legal implications for the types of content you post online. 25% of young Australians admit that they’ve used inappropriate language on social media or shared posts containing such content7. Whilst 58% of young people consider the implications of what they share on social media on their family and 55% on their friends, concerningly, 43% of young people do not consider the repercussions of what they post on their current or prospective employers8. Consider how might others perceive this post? How could this comment/image/video be misconstrued? How would you feel if someone brought this post up in a job interview in your future?
  4. Avoid book-ending your day with social media- checking social media first thing when you wake up or last thing before you go to sleep can have a negative impact on your mood. You only need to see one upsetting comment or DM and you activate the amygdala, the emotional hub of your brain. As humans, we also have a negativity bias, meaning we’re hard-wired to look for negative things. If we start reading social media posts that have a negative message, we not only feel bad in ourselves, but we also signal to the recommendation algorithm to share similar content in our social media feeds, which perpetuates the negative cycle. Equally, viewing social media before sleep can over-stimulate the brain making it more challenging to fall sleep. This problem is exacerbated by the adverse impact of blue light that comes from smartphones.
  5. Track your screentime- iOS users can use the Screen Time tool and Android users can use the Digital Wellbeing feature to track just how many hours /day and week you’re spending on social media platforms every day or week. Many of us don’t realise how much time we’re spending on these platforms each day. However, knowledge is power. If you were in total control, how many hours a day would you want to be on it and how many would be too many?
  6. Go greyscale- this is a simple step to make social media more boring and unattractive, so you’ll want to pick it up less. Find out how you can activate greyscale mode on your phone.
  7. Schedule your social media hours- be intentional about when you want to use social media, rather than using it constantly throughout the day. Nominate set times of the day when you want to use it. Set a timer on your phone as a reminder to stop you going down the digital rabbit hole.
  8. Manage your social media notifications- the default setting on phones is to keep push notifications on for all apps. You need to disable any non-essential social media notifications in your settings, elect to bundle your notifications to come to you at set times of the day as opposed to dribbling in throughout the day (perhaps you’d like your notifications to come to you after you’re likely to have completed your homework or study). Also learn to set up VIP notifications from the apps and people who are critical for you to receive instant updates, so then when you switch your phone to Do Not Disturb mode, the only notifications that will come through, will be from those on your VIP list. Ask yourself, what’s really important enough to interrupt what I’m doing? If your phone isn’t constantly pinging and dinging, you’ll be less tempted to pick it up.
  9. Remove tech-temptations from your home-screen- if there’s a social media app that you can’t resist, remove it from your home screen, so you’re less likely to open it every time you unlock your phone. Dragging the icon off the home screen and into a later page on screen, creates more friction.
  10. Take social media off your phone- if you’re really struggling to control your social media use, consider a three-day or one-week trial where you remove the app from your phone and see how you feel afterwards. You could still access the social media platform on your laptop or tablet but taking it off your phone creates more friction.
  11. Keep it out of sight- a study found that the mere presence of a smartphone, even if it’s turned over and even if it’s off can trigger us to pick it up and slide down a digital vortex9. When you need to study, when you want to be present with your friends or family, put your phone out of sight and on silent.
  12. Log out- logging out of social media platforms creates extra steps to log back in. You’re adding intermediary steps and in doing so creating more friction. One of the reasons many young people fall down the social media hole is because using it on your phone is frictionless- it’s effortless.
  13. Use digital nudges- most social media tools now allow users to nominate the amount of time they’d like to spend on the platform in an effort to help users regulate the time they spend online. These are very easy to override, but they can sometimes be enough to remind you about how much time you’re spending on social media and may prompt you to revaluate what you’re doing.
  14. Use tech prohibition tools- tools such as Freedom, Forest and Rescue Time offer digital protection if willpower alone won’t work. These apps and tools vary in their design but offer various ways to curb our social media use.

Social media is here to stay, so it’s paramount that you develop healthy and sustainable habits and practices that ensure that you’re controlling, not being controlled by social media. The onus is on you, as the social media user, to use social media in intentional and productive ways, so that you can thrive in the digital world and benefit from using social media platforms.

  1. Ithra (2021). Digital Wellbeing Global Report. Accessed https://sync.ithra.com/reports/SYNC_Global_digital_well-being_report_EN.pdf, May 2022.
  2. Pharo, H., Gross, J., Richardson, R., & Hayne, H. (2011). Age-related changes in the effect of ostracism. Social Influence, 6(1), 22-38.
  3. Allen, K. A., Ryan, T., Gray, D. L., McInerney, D. M., & Waters, L. (2014). Social media use and social connectedness in adolescents: The positives and the potential pitfalls. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 31(1), 18-31. Chicago. Pharo, H., Gross, J., Richardson, R., & Hayne, H. (2011). Age-related changes in the effect of ostracism. Social Influence, 6(1), 22-38.
  4. Braghieri, L., Levy, R., & Makarin, A. (2021). Social media and mental health. Available at SSRN.
  5. Su, C., Zhou, H., Gong, L., Teng, B., Geng, F., & Hu, Y. (2021). Viewing personalized video clips recommended by TikTok activates default mode network and ventral tegmental area. NeuroImage, 237, 118136.
  6. Kasperseky. (2021) Our Changing Relationship with Social Medi: A Global Study. Kaspersky, September 2021.
  7. Kasperseky. (2021) Our Changing Relationship with Social Medi: A Global Study. Kaspersky, September 2021.
  8. Kasperseky. (2021) Our Changing Relationship with Social Medi: A Global Study. Kaspersky, September 2021.
  9. Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2), 140-154.